History of education in New Zealand

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The ideas for education in New Zealand developed from mass education. Mass education was not part of the ideas of the enlightenment.

Origins of primary school[edit]

The passing of the Education Act 1877 established New Zealand's first free national system of primary education. Before then children attended a school governed by the provincial government or a church school, or private school. However, many children did not attend school, especially those from rural areas where labour was more important. The quality of education varied widely amongst those providing it. The Education Act 1877 sought to establish standards of quality of education, and to be "free, compulsary and secular". It became compulsory for children from ages 5 to 15 to attend primary school.

Origins of secondary school[edit]

By 1900, less than 10 percent of New Zealand’s population went to secondary school, but this was not free education. Most who attended secondary school headed to university and the professions. In the late 19th and 20th centuries there was more need for labouring jobs than academic or educational qualifications. Then as the country grew, so did the need for skilled tradespeople and administrators, and the secondary sector also expanded.

The Education Act 1914 required all secondary schools to offer free education to all those who passed a Proficiency examination. By 1917, 37 percent of the population went to secondary school.

Just as mass primary education had been created to provide industry with workers, the secondary sector expanded to satisfy the needs of the economy. However, they ran along the lines of the English grammar school system, and offered a traditional curriculum. This was suitable for those attending university, but did not suit those with other goals. It continues to exert a strong influence on secondary schools today.

Introduction of technical high schools[edit]

An attempt to address this was made early in the 20th century by introducing technical high schools. They offered a more “practical” and “relevant” curriculum than traditional grammar schools. The idea was not a success, and the traditional schools took a scornful attitude to those attending technical high schools. Many parents believed that secondary schools should provide a pathway for those entering high-status professions, and to have a better life. The two systems were intended to be equal in status, but ended up being run along class lines.

The Thomas Report, 1944[edit]

In the 1930s another attempt (see The Atmore Report, 1930) was made to address an egalitarian education system.

The unpopular technical high schools led to an important document called the Thomas report of 1944. It set out to address the concerns of the curriculum, and was to remain in place for the following fifty years. It introduced school certificate, and abolished a Matriculation, replacing it with University Entrance. The main contribution of this report was a common, core curriculum that provided an education for all. The material was to be drawn from both practical and academic strands, with the added aim of catering for students of widely differing abilities, interests, and backgrounds. This was to be compulsory up to the end of form 4. But schools resisted the reforms by streaming students into different ability classes as measured by IQ, and giving these classes different versions of the core curriculum.[citation needed]



In the 1980s, New Zealand education underwent more major reforms. Early in the decade, the government called for a review of the curriculum. This information was collected but the public’s ideas were not used. Instead, it was overtaken by reforms that addressed the administration of education. Two major reports appeared. The first, Administering for Excellence was produced by Professor Peter Ramsay of Waikato University, Margaret Rosemergy, a Wellington Teachers College lecturer. Whetumarama Rolleston, a sociologist, and Dunedin businessman and Otago university council member Colin Wise. Simon Smelt from Treasury and Marijke Robinson from the State Services Commission were attached to the Task force where they played a major and at times controversial role. The report was a mixture of good education principle and a business model of education with plenty of compromise, reflecting the internal tension of the deliberations. The report became known as the Picot report after its chair, Brian Picot, a supermarket magnate. The second report called Tomorrow Schools, drafted by officials including Robinson and Smelt but no educationalists, was accepted by new Education Minister David Lange and his colleagues as the blueprint for the future organization of New Zealand's school system. The government replaced the Department of Education with three new bodies - a ministry of education, an education review office and a qualifications authority. Schools became autonomous entities, managed by boards of trustees. This arrangement is in place today in all schools in New Zealand.

Conservative curriculum reforms were completed in the 1990s, followed by more comprehensive and contemporary reform a decade later, updating what was taught in schools for the 21st century.

Recent developments (2010–present)[edit]

In 2012 the Ministry came under fire over a number of different issues including the release of National Standards data, the Novopay payroll system, the closure and merger of schools in Christchurch, the implementation of charter schools, and the closure of residential schools.

Resignation of Lesley Longstone[edit]

Lesley Longstone was recruited from Britain where her last role was overseeing the introduction of a UK version of charter schools in Britain.[1] She was appointed as chief executive for the Ministry of Education in New Zealand with a five-year contract starting in July 2012 and a salary of $660,000 a year. She was recruited from England and given a "relocation payout" of $50,000 which "covers flights, freight, up to eight weeks' accommodation and visa expenses".[2] Chief executives recruited from overseas only have to repay the grant if they leave the job within a year. Longstone held the position for 13 months before she was pushed into resigning after her relationship with Education Minister Hekia Parata became 'strained'.[3] She was paid $425,000 in severance pay.[4]

National standards[edit]

Class sizes[edit]

In May 2012, Education Minister, Hekia Parata, announced changes to the education sector which would raise the level of qualification required by teachers - including a minimum requirement of postgraduate degrees for teacher trainees. Because of proposed budget cuts, she also announced there would be a loss of specialized teaching staff in intermediate schools and a corresponding increase in class sizes. However, it was Treasury rather than the Ministry of Education which was responsible for promoting this strategy "which essentially rates teacher quality as a more critical factor than class size".[5]

As Education Minister, Parata was given the job of selling the policy to the sector. She claimed the changes would save $43 million a year and that: "About 90 per cent of schools will have a net loss of less than one full-time teacher equivalent as a result of the combined effect of the ratio changes and projected roll growth."[6] Over the next few months, teachers and parents alike voiced their concerns about the proposed changes especially when it was revealed that the new ratios would cause some schools to lose up to seven teachers.[7] Because of public backlash, in June 2012 Parata announced the Government would not go ahead with the policy and acknowledged it had caused "a disproportionate amount of anxiety for parents".[8]


Main article: Novopay

In 2012, the Ministry rolled out a new payroll system for teachers and other school staff called Novopay run by the Australian company Talent 2. From the outset, the system led to widespread problems with over 8,000 teachers receiving the wrong pay and in some cases no pay at all;[9] within a few months, 90% of schools were affected.[10]

The 'Novopay débâcle' as it was called[11][12] received almost daily media attention, causing embarrassment for the new Minister of Education Hekia Parata, and leading to the resignation of newly recruited Education secretary Leslie Longstone. The Australian Financial Review says: "The débâcle bears similarities to the botched $500 million payroll implementation at Queensland Health by IBM" which is expected to end up costing $1.25 billion.[13]

School closures in Christchurch[edit]

In September 2012, newly appointed Education Minister, Hekia Parata, announced that 13 schools in Christchurch would be closed and 18 would be merged following the earthquakes the previous year.[14] The decision caused outrage in the local community.[15] In an editorial, the New Zealand Herald said: "Of all the mishaps in education this year, the Christchurch school plan was the most telling. To read the plan was to see a Ministry utterly out of touch with the people its schools are supposed to serve. The earthquakes had left a number of schools damaged and some of their communities decimated. Some closures would be required. But not nearly as many as the ministry decided."[16]

After further consultation, the Government backtracked. On 18 February, Ministry of Education staff visited the 31 schools under the Ministry's spotlight to tell teachers and principals in person which schools would be closed.[17] Seven schools would close and twelve would merge creating another five closures. Another twelve schools originally proposed for closure or merger would now remain unaffected.[18] In March 2013 the Ombudsman announced an investigation would be held into the way the Education Ministry conducted its consultation process on schools closures and mergers to see if they were done in "a manner that adequately ensures fair and meaningful participation by affected parties".[19]

Charter schools[edit]

The National government agreed to the introduction of charter schools in 2011 as part of its arrangement with John Banks for the support of the ACT Party after the election. Catherine Isaac, a former Act president, says charter schools would not have to follow Ministry of Education requirements but would be free to set their own timetables, school terms and teacher working conditions.[20]

The proposal for charter schools aroused considerable opposition, not just from teachers groups. Speaking to a parliamentary committee, New Zealand Principals' Federation president Philip Harding said: "There is no public mandate to pursue this policy."[21] The New Zealand School Trustees Association expressed concerns about allowing people to teach who are not registered teachers.[22] The Chief Ombudsman, Dame Beverley Wakem, expressed concern that making charter schools exempt from public scrutiny was "unconstitutional" and would detract from public confidence.[21] In February 2013, visiting American Karran Harper Royal told the education and science committee in Parliament that "charter schools have been a failed experiment in New Orleans" and the Government should not proceed with them.[23]

John O'Neill, professor of teacher education at Massey University's Institute of Education says the Bill proposing the establishment of charter schools is "undemocratic and patronising". The Education Amendment Bill euphemistically refers to them as 'partnership' schools - but O'Neill says "the so-called partnership will only be between the Government and a private 'sponsor' which may be for-profit and have no prior connection with the local community". He says parents will have no right of representation on the school's governing body as they do in state schools, and the Minister of Education can set up a charter school without even consulting the local community.[24]

Leaky schools[edit]

Main article: Leaky homes crisis

By March 2013, 305 schools were reported as having problems with cladding and weathertightness issues which is expected to cost the Ministry up to $1.4 billion to repair. These schools were built or modified between 1995 and 2005, and are an extension of the leaky homes crisis which has affected many New Zealand homes of the same era. At Te Rapa school (near Hamilton) so many of the classrooms were affected the entire school was "forced to play musical classrooms" for over a year while repairs were being done. Principal Vaughan Franklin described it as a 'massive disruption' which threatened the quality of teaching. So far only 61 schools have been repaired.[25]

In 2013 the Ministry was involved in legal action over 87 schools to rectify damage caused by "poor design, workmanship, quality control, and materials failure" and is holding architects, designers and builders liable for the cost of repairs. Contractors are liable for the cost if the building work was undertaken within the past 10 years.[26]

Weathertightness issues have also been identified with several 1970s-built secondary schools constructed to the "S 68" design. These schools were designed with low-pitched roofs and protruding wooden clerestory windows in pre-1977 schools (schools built from 1977 have skylights), which in recent years have started to cause problems in areas with relatively high rainfall. The original prototype buildings at Porirua College (opened in 1968, hence "S 68"), have progressively been replaced with modern building since 2007, while extensive re-roofing projects have taken place at other schools, including Waiopehu College in Levin and Awatapu College in Palmerston North.[27]

See also[edit]


  • Catching the Knowledge Wave?, Gilbert, J. 2005, NZCER Press